February 20th, 2017
By Lauren Stauffer – Associate Fellow
On 23 December, United Nations Resolution 2334 passed with a vote of 14-0. The resolution called for Israel to “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem”. Upon last minute instruction from President Obama, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, chose to abstain from the vote due to the belief that support for the expansion of Israeli settlements into Palestinian territory would undermine any potential two-state solution. This stance upholds Resolution 242 (1967) which implemented a “land for peace” formula that demanded Israel to withdraw from all of the territories that it had occupied in 1967. Following the most recent vote on Israeli settlements and the surprising U.S. abstention, applause filled the chamber in recognition of America’s decision. Ambassador Power, however, chose to deemphasize the political meaning behind America breaking support from Israel and, instead, highlighted the continuity of the U.S.’s stance by remarking that, “Today, the Security Council reaffirmed its established consensus that settlements have no legal validity. The United States has been sending the message that the settlements must stop – privately and publicly – for nearly five decades”. Therefore, according to the Obama administration, the choice to abstain was not unusual but, instead, a logical continuation of past policy.
However, following the passage of Resolution 2334, the United States became embroiled in controversy as the Israeli government lambasted the U.S. for voting shamefully and questioned the role of the United Nations. At the same time, American politicians – both Republicans and Democrats – joined other critics in decrying Obama for having “abandoned Israel” and for supporting such a “one-sided, biased resolution”. Most noteworthy was President-elect Donald Trump’s involvement before and after the vote. On December 22nd, Trump posted on Facebook that the resolution “should be vetoed” and that American support for the resolution would be “extremely unfair to all Israelis”. In addition to pressuring President Obama, Donald Trump called on Member States, such as Egypt, to withdraw their support of the resolution. Not only did Trump’s interference in the U.N. vote represent another instance of his unprecedented, increasing presence during the White House transition process, but Trump’s reaction increased conservative outrage. Taking to Twitter, Trump warned that “things will be different” for the U.N. after January 20th and that he would not allow Israel to continue to “be treated with such total disdain and disrespect”.
While many important debates have surrounded and stemmed from the resolution, such as the perceived issue of settlements in East Jerusalem, the question of who is to be held responsible for violence against civilians, and the applicability of international law, one of the greatest questions emerging from the vote concerns the relevancy of the United Nations as it becomes a target for those who condemn Obama’s unwillingness to veto Resolution 2334. Many conservative leaders, such as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, as well as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are calling the international organization into question. Now in its 71st year of existence, the United Nations is finding its presence and funding under assault. Beginning with Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister quickly refused to accept the U.N.’s decision, pulled ambassadors from resolution co-sponsors, New Zealand and Senegal, and vowed to stop funding U.N. institutions. Specifically, a senior Israeli official is reported as having disclosed that the government pledged to cut nearly $8 million in funding, specifically to U.N. Relief and Works Agency, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and the U.N. observer force on the Golan Heights. Not only would such actions negatively impact the U.N.’s budget, but Israel’s decision could restrict the flow of new recruits to the agencies and hamper the ability of experts to carry out their assigned work.
Along with Netanyahu, conservative politicians in the U.S. are threatening to cut funding from the United Nations. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) has led the fight by stating that he cannot “support funding a body that singles out the only democracy in the Middle East who shares our values” and plans to propose a measure that will constrain U.S. funding unless the Security Council repeals the resolution. Following Graham, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) condemned the Obama administration for having a “systemic agenda to weaken Israel” and reiterated the call to “significantly reduce or even eliminate U.S. funding of the United Nations”. Both senators, in addition to Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), plan to receive support from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), incoming Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York), and President-elect Donald Trump. With such a potentially strong, political coalition, funding for the U.N. is in even greater danger as the United States is the organization’s largest funding source. While only 1.4% of the American budget is devoted to foreign aid, which includes contributions to the U.N., the United Nations relies on the U.S. for paying 22% of its regular budget and 28% of its peacekeeping budget. Thus, while the U.S. can threaten to cut U.N. funding without much care to the changes in their budget, the U.N. would be significantly affected.
Most worrisome is how such a cut in funding would affect U.N. work in other areas, such as Syria, whose war-torn country is home to many innocent refugees. Cutting U.N. funding while a refugee crisis continues to unfold in the Middle East is not only irresponsible, it is downright cruel and unfair from a humanitarian standpoint. Not only does the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) work to protect 4 million people who have fled Syria since 2011, but the U.N. budget also goes towards funding agencies, such as the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) and also the U.N. International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), which claims to have saved over 90 million children since 1990. With more and more conservative governments coming to power in the West, in addition to the increasing hostility towards incoming refugees, every dollar being donated to the U.N. is important.
Historically, this is not the first time that the U.N. has been under attack. In the 1990s, a Republican-dominated Congress and a President fearful of incurring another Black Hawk Down incident looked to limit U.N. peacekeeping missions. In May 1994, the Clinton administration sought to constrain U.N. action through the establishment of Presidential Decision Directive/NSC-25 (PDD 25). PDD 25 invoked several strict requirements for operations to receive U.S. support, such as needing clear political and military objectives, guaranteed support from other Member States, and transferring some U.N. financial management to the Defense and State Department. Referred to as “shared responsibility,” this shift in funding actually allowed the U.S. to obtain “funding responsibility for traditional peacekeeping operations that [did] not involve U.S. combat units” and use military expertise to influence those that do involve U.S. troops. Unfortunately, also in the spring of 1994, genocide erupted in Rwanda and PDD 25 limited the response by both the United Nations and the United States. General Romeo Dallaire, the force commander of the U.N. Mission to Rwanda (UNAMIR), issued numerous requests to the U.N. for more funding and troop support. Despite these requests beginning in January, Dallaire’s attempts to obtain increased funding and military support went largely unanswered in spite of widespread genocide resulting in the estimated death of 500,000-1,000,000 Rwandans in 100 days. The U.N.’s failure to act can be greatly attributed to PDD 25, the obstinate stance of the U.S. to avoid engaging in another intervention, and the resistance to heavily fund the United Nations. As in 1994, when the U.S. reacted negatively to the failure of its operation in Somalia by curbing U.N. support through PDD 25, the incoming Trump administration and the loud chorus of conservative legislators have the potential to make the same mistake as mass atrocities are occurring in the Middle East and military tensions are on the rise throughout the world.
No matter whether one thinks that the U.S. abstention on Resolution 2334 was a correct or detrimental decision, the United Nations continues to play an important and consequential role around the world and should not be punished. Should the U.S. eliminate or restrict U.N. funding, it is not the United Nations that will suffer but many innocent civilians. Following the creation of PDD-25, many horrific crises occurred in places such as Bosnia, Nepal, Afghanistan, the Congo, Kosovo, and East Timor. And yet, because of the alarmed and reactionary decisions of high-level American politicians following the failed intervention in Somalia, the response capabilities of U.N. missions were greatly diminished. Now, with similar reactions arising amongst conservatives in the West, it is possible that the United Nations will be crippled once again.
Additionally, when assessing how to react to the passage of the resolution, it is important to consider the words of Samantha Power that were stated after the vote. The U.S. Ambassador remarked, “Member States should also ask themselves about the double standards when it comes to this Council taking action. Just this morning we came together, as a Council, and we were unable to muster the will to act to stop the flow of weapons going to killers in South Sudan, who are perpetrating mass atrocities that the UN has said could lead to genocide…Yet when a resolution on Israel comes before this Council, members suddenly summon the will to act.” While this vote was one of the rare occasions that the U.S. chose not to protect Israel, the abstention did allow for the Security Council to act as it was originally intended – through a vote not based on political alliances. Furthermore, Power’s comment serves as a reminder of how ineffective the Security Council often is regarding issues of extreme importance and danger. While Resolution 2334 has been viewed by many supporters of Israel as a withdrawal of American support for a close ally, the resolution has elevated the subject of Israel-Palestine peace to the forefront of foreign policy discussion once again. History bears witness that controversy and disagreement with the United Nations should not be met with calls to defund the U.N., which can and will result in the world turning a blind eye to mass atrocities occurring daily.